Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Unity of Love: Reflections on the First Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Unity of Love: Reflections on the First Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI

Article excerpt

The theme of this article is Pope Benedict XVI's most important publication as Pope, the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, or "God is Love." (1) An "encyclical" means literally a circular letter. In the Catholic Church, the term applies to an authoritative statement addressed by the pope to the whole Church. A pope's first encyclical is especially important; it can set a direction for his whole ministry. In this case, the encyclical addresses the greatest of all subjects--the nature of God, the nature of man, and the purpose of human life on earth: "We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." (2)

I take encouragement from the way the encyclical itself is written and presented. Pope Benedict took the trouble to explain his work to the public through a speech delivered two days before publication and then again through a letter to the readers of the magazine Famiglia Cristiana. The encyclical is written in a modest way. The Pope uses the first person--"I wish in my encyclical ...," "I wanted here to clarify ...," and so on. The Pope even says this, "The first part is more speculative. "Throughout the document there is a wide range of reference--to scripture and the early Christian writers, to classical civilization, to Marx, Nietzsche, and Descartes. The style itself, low-key, receptive to everything that has been thought and written on the subject of love, yields, I think, a paradoxical result. First, this document written for Christians is so free of conventional language and in-house jargon that it seems equally relevant to a wider audience. Second, the gentleness of tone in Deus Caritas Est is an invitation to us, the general public, to debate it openly.

My reflections for this article are in four parts: first, I shall recall the cultural context of the encyclical and indeed of the present Pope's election. Second, I shall review briefly the introductory statements through which Pope Benedict himself helps us understand his encyclical. Third, I shall say something about the structure and style of the encyclical. Fourth, I shall devote the largest part of this article to what seem to me the six main themes of Deus Caritas Est.

"To come to believe in God's love" is for Pope Benedict the greatest of all gifts. The method of the encyclical assumes that apprehension of this truth is not going to be forced on us by rhetorical argument. More likely, it will be something that grows on us over time. As I see it, Deus Caritas Est illuminates and renders coherent our experience of life. It promotes a "Christian humanism," a culture or civilization more favorable for our encounter with God's love.

1. A Culture that Dispenses with Christian Belief

I turn first to the cultural background of the encyclical. In a lecture on the encyclical, Professor Marcello Pera, the president of the Senate of Italy, chose the title "Europe at a Crossroads" and quoted from Pope Benedict XVI in support of the thesis that Europe "is in a state of deep crisis." (3) It is worth repeating the quotation from the Pope that Professor Pera used as a starting point for his argument: "There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted." (4) Is it true that we are "subsisting on models that are destined to fail," that an inability to engage with deeper truth is characteristic of our way of life in rich countries? It seems to me--and not everyone's emphasis will be the same as Professor Pera's--that there are three clusters of issues on which the answer to these questions depends. …

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